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    God’s New Language

    At Pentecost God created a community of people whose very differences contribute to their unity.

    By Stanley Hauerwas

    May 28, 2023

    It is only against the background of Babel that we can understand the extraordinary event of Pentecost. The sound that was like the rush of a mighty wind signaled a new creation. The fire of the Holy Spirit burned clean, making possible a new understanding. The Jews of diaspora heard these Galilean followers of Jesus telling of the mighty works of God in their own language. The promised people themselves, who had been scattered among the tribes, learning their languages, were now reunited in common understanding. The wound of Babel began to be healed first among the very people God had called into the world as a pledge of God’s presence.

    The joy of that healing surely must have made them ecstatic. It is literally a joy not possible except by God’s creation. It is a joy that comes from recognizing we have been freed from our endless cycle of injury and revenge. It is the joy of unity that we experience all too briefly in moments of self-forgetfulness. It is no wonder, therefore, that some onlookers simply attributed this strange behavior to the consumption of potent wine. …

    painting of flames above the heads of the disciples at Pentecost

    Photograph by music4life

    The Spirit, to be sure, is a wild and powerful presence creating a new people where there was no people, but it is a spirit that they and we know. For the work it is doing is not different from the work that was done in Jesus of Nazareth. Therefore, in John Jesus tells his disciples that he must go so that the Counselor, the Spirit of truth, might be present to bear witness to him. Moreover, that same witness that the Spirit makes to Jesus transforms the witness of the disciples, as they are now able to see what they have seen from the beginning but not seen at all.

    In this transformation of the disciples we see the central theme of the Gospel. To be a disciple of Jesus it is not enough to know the basic “facts” of his life. It is not enough to know his story. Rather, to be a disciple of Jesus means that our lives must literally be taken up into the drama of God’s redemption of this creation. That is the work of the Spirit as we are made part of God’s new time through the life and work of this man, Jesus of Nazareth. …

    The unity of humankind prefigured at Pentecost is not just any unity but that made possible by the apocalyptic work of Jesus of Nazareth. It is a unity of renewed understanding, but the kind of understanding is not that created by some artificial Esperanto that denies the reality of other languages. Attempts to secure unity through the creation of a single language are attempts to make us forget our histories and differences rather than find the unity made possible by the Spirit through which we understand the other as other. At Pentecost God created a new language, but it was a language that is more than words. It is instead a community whose memory of its savior creates the miracle of being a people whose very differences contribute to their unity.

    To be a disciple of Jesus means that our lives must literally be taken up into the drama of God’s redemption of this creation.

    We call this new creation church. It is constituted by word and sacrament, as the story we tell, the story we embody, must not only be told but enacted. In the telling we are challenged to be a people capable of hearing God’s good news such that we can be a witness to others. …

    There is no way, if we are to be faithful to God’s gift at Pentecost, that the church can avoid calling attention to itself. To be sure, like Israel, the church has a story to tell in which God is the main character. But the church cannot tell that story without becoming part of the tale. The church as witness to God’s work for us in Israel and Jesus of Nazareth means that here the teller and the tale are one. For this is not just another possible story about the way the world is, it is the story of the world as created and redeemed by God. That story, the story of the world, cannot be told rightly unless it includes the story of the church as God’s creation to heal our separateness. … Moreover, it is not a creation that God did at one point in time and does not need to do again. Rather, it is our belief that what God did at Pentecost he continues to do to renew and to sustain the presence of the church so that the world might know there is an alternative to Babel.

    Source: Stanley Hauerwas, “God’s New Language,” in The Hauerwas Reader, eds. John Berkman and Michael Cartwright (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001), 146–150.

    Contributed By StanleyHauerwas Stanley Hauerwas

    Stanley Hauerwas is a theologian and Christian ethicist, and professor emeritus of theological ethics and of law at Duke University. He is the author or editor of more than fifty books.

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